How Connexus Church Created a Culture for Inviting New Guests
I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with Jeff Brodie. You may not know Jeff, but you may know the founding and teaching pastor at Jeff’s church—it’s Carey Nieuwhof.
Jeff and I were catching up recently because four or five years ago, I flew to Canada to facilitate a strategic planning retreat with Carey, Jeff and the team at Connexus Church.
During that time together, we discovered that what they at the time thought was a “back door” challenge at the church was actually more of a front door problem.
It was a big moment in the conversation and in the life of this church. Connexus is an outwardly-focused church. They’d been designing weekend services for people to meet Jesus. They talked about inviting all the time. And people were inviting—but not the way they hoped they would.
I was so encouraged in the conversation with Jeff a few weeks ago because the way they responded to that challenge and the results they’ve seen are incredible.
I’ll give you a preview: It all started with a heart change. The whole culture of the church has become focused on tangibly, practically loving people outside the walls. And through that heart change, they’ve seen the fastest growth to-date in their church.
In this episode, Jeff and I discussed:
- Why Jeff believes jumping straight to strategies for creating more invite opportunities would’ve short-circuited what God wanted to do in the life of the church
- The flaw in how many of our churches teach the language of “invest and invite”
- Why invite culture starts with staff culture, and what Connexus considers indicators that the staff is leading the right way
- The significant change that challenges the assumption guests want to be “anonymous”
- How streaming services and online engagement factor into physical attendance
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Jeff Brodie, lead pastor at Connexus Church in Barrie, ON
- The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door by Jay Pathak
- Strategic Planning with The Unstuck Process
- Carey Nieuwhof’s Podcast
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Sean: 00:02 Welcome to the Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. This week on the podcast, Tony sits down with Jeff Brodie, lead pastor of Connexus Church, for a conversation on how their church created a culture for inviting new guests and are now seeing double-digit percentage growth because of it. As you listen to this week’s podcast, you can join the conversation by using the #unstuckchurch and posting your question or comment on your favorite social media channel. Connect with Tony, Amy, myself, and our unstuck team and get your ministry specific questions answered. Also, if you haven’t yet, make sure to grab the show notes as you listen. You can find those at theunstuckgroup.com/episode97. And better yet, make sure to subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox each week. You’ll get one email with the leader guide, the resources we mentioned, and bonus resources to go along with the content. You can sign up by going to the unstuckgroup.com/podcast. And now here’s the conversation with Tony and Jeff Brodie.
Tony: 01:02 I’m really looking forward to today’s conversation. Actually, Jeff and I had an initial conversation just a couple of weeks ago and he shared something about what’s happening at Connexus Church and gosh, what he was talking about I was thinking, everybody that listens to this podcast is going to want to hear this conversation. So I twisted his arm and he agreed to jump back on to record this conversation for our podcast. Jeff, welcome to the conversation today.
Jeff: 01:28 Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to it. It’s fun to be here Tony.
Tony: 01:32 You may not know Jeff, but you may know the teaching pastor at Jeff’s church. Jeff is the lead pastor at Connexus Church and the teaching pastor is Carey Nieuwhof. Carrie is an aspiring podcaster as well.
Jeff: 01:46 Careynieuwhof.com – I’m trying to get his podcasts going; if you go to Careynieuwhof.com, he’s got real potential.
New Speaker: 01:54 I think he does have potential, that’s right. So what prompted this conversation today though, Jeff, is it actually the journey starts for me and my involvement with what’s happening at Connexus about four or five years ago, I guess it was. And in my working with you and your team, we kind of discovered what you thought I think was a backdoor problem at the church was actually really more of a front door problem. Can you go back in time and kind of catch us up to speed?
Jeff: 02:28 Sure. It was about five years ago, we asked Tony to come and spend some time with us that year. You’re gracious enough to do that, Tony, and we booked you, five years before, but then it was four years before when eventually the date rolled around. Little did we know it would be like the, basically the month Carrie and I would be passing the baton and a succession plan. I wish we could say we’d done that strategically, but it just worked out that way, which was great. We began to have a conversation about where our church is at and you’re a hundred percent correct. Tony, we started talking about the number of guests that we were seeing and were talking about the fact that when we looked at our number, you had said, hey, for a healthy new guests number, it needs to be equivalent in a year to what you see on a Sunday.
Jeff: 03:16 And that kind of rocked us a little bit. When you left, we had been counting in a different way so we said, hey, we need to get this all, you know, we need to be counting the same way all the time, all that stuff, and really get down to what the numbers are. When we saw them, we realize, oh, we have thought all along, some of the growth that we wanted to see; we were growing but not at the pace we wanted to. We thought it was a backdoor problem and realized, no, we actually have a front door problem we need to be seeing probably at least twice as the number of new guests that we were seeing at that time. So it was a sobering moment for us because we said, wow, I mean, we’re creating a church that unchurch people love to attend, we’re excited, we’re talking about inviting all the time. It’s not that we don’t talk about it and it’s not that it isn’t happening, but it isn’t happening at the level that it should be if we’re going to grow at the pace that we would like to. So that’s kind of where the problem that landed in our lap.
Tony: 04:13 All right. So then you’re kind of hit with that challenge. What was the first response? It’s interesting: I’m a strategist, so my first gut reaction, well, let’s create a strategy to overcome this challenge, but that’s not necessarily where you began, was it?
Jeff: 04:29 The truth is, it is where we began at first. So, I sat down with my leadership team and said, hey, we need to tackle this. The immediate thing that happens is everybody jumps for the tools. Everybody wants to try this tool, this program, and just never sat right with me. I thought to myself, hey, this is really isn’t about tools. It’s not about better invite opportunities, creating more things that people can invite you. There is a vision gap here around a true passion for people in our community. It’s not that we weren’t passionate as an organization, but were we passionate as people on the organic side; were we as people who call ourselves a church Connexus actually passionate about seeing our friends, our neighbors, our call leagues have their lives regenerated, redeemed by the Jesus who we think transforms lives?
Jeff: 05:31 It was tempting to go to the tools and there were some tools that we were looking at. One of them, which was something that Jeff Henderson had started to do out of The Four Company, which people can find online, but back then it was just a brand new thing he was trying. We were looking at that going, “Oh, we should just launch this and say, hey, we’re going to reach into the community by giving to our community partners and being more public” and I said, no, I think this is about individual ministry. I was reading a book called The Art of Neighboring, and the book is by Jay Paddock and Dave Runyon, who I’ve never met. I started reading that book and it’s all about building relationships in your neighborhood.
Jeff: 06:18 Another book, an inner varsity book, I forget who wrote it, all about the steps that people take as they come to faith and the first step is relationship. I was just praying all about that and realizing, hey, as a community we have to grow when it comes to our passion for reaching people who live next door to us and around us.
Tony: 06:42 So practically Jeff, what did that look like? How did you begin to close that vision, that passion gap for the people outside your church?
Jeff: 06:51 I think for me, I really think that often we think that vision, casting vision as leaders, is about growing our church or we think that vision is about taking people from A to B. I started to think about, hey, maybe the vision of our church is determined by the size of our hearts for people. That may be what God has for us is actually determined by how big our hearts can grow.
Jeff: 07:19 So we started to pray about that and as a team, we said, “Hey, we’re going to launch something called ‘For the City’, but we’re not going to launch it just as some kind of program, we’re going to launch it as a challenge to our people to grow their hearts for our community.” So what that means is so many people feel like life is against them, that God is against some, that our church would be against them. What if we became a church that was for them, not just as we gather, but as we go into the community? So that ended up being the conversation is “What does it mean to be for people as they gather?” Well, that’s easy, we are already doing that, but what does it mean to be for people as we go into our community?
Jeff: 08:05 So as a part of that, what I began to share with the people in our churches, I said, “Hey, we know that you love the community and what would happen if you got in the corner of these people in your life who feel like God is against them? Wouldn’t that change something for those people? And one of those people eventually found out not only that you’re in their corner and God’s in their corner, wouldn’t that change something for them? We would see their lives changed. So we said, “Hey, we’re going to be for people on Sunday morning, we want you to continue to be thinking about who you’re going to invite, but we’re going to challenge each and every person in our church to be for four people in their life to get in the corner of four people.
Jeff: 08:48 I was very clear, this isn’t about turning people into projects, but it’s about changing the posture of our heart towards people. I grew up in a house, Tony, where life change happened at our kitchen table. I mean, I’ve seen people at my parent’s kitchen table who sobered up at my parents’ kitchen table. I’ve seen people who are recovering from all kinds of addiction at their kitchen table. I saw marriages reconciled at our kitchen table. I saw lonely people having coffee at our kitchen table. And I actually brought my parents’ kitchen table and I put it on the platform and I told stories about that table and I said, “We’re launching a brand new environment at Connexus this morning and it’s your kitchen table. Maybe it’s not your kitchen table for you it’s the back of your pickup truck. Maybe for you, it’s your office cubicle at work. Maybe for you, it’s the side of the soccer sidelines where you’re going to start with four people, and you’re going to get in their corner and you are going to pray. So this isn’t about necessarily inviting them. This is about changing the posture of your heart towards those people.
Tony: 09:52 I love that. So, that was the foundation for the next steps for your church. My guess again, knowing how you are wired up, that there probably were some intentional strategy shifts and what that you made as a church once that vision was established. Can you share a little bit about what that looked like?
Jeff: 10:14 Sure. So I rolled it out first to a group of invested people – we had like 300 people at a night of worship. We rolled it out, your classic rolling out in concentric circles and then we rolled it out to the entire church and then people have the opportunity to identify who they were going to be for. So they put that on a card for themselves and then they could actually subscribe to an email list where I would send a regular email to share stories about how people had been for people and also to give them tips. Here’s the big learning in this for me, Tony. I think it was at the heart of the whole thing. I realized that in our culture. We’ve forgotten how to be social. We’ve forgotten how to, we don’t actually know how to build a relationship – that’s what I realized. This was about teaching people how to be social, not about how to share their faith. We had the lower the bar way, way down.
Jeff: 11:19 I’m talking about a church full of fantastic people. I love the people in our church. It’s not that they aren’t sharp people, it’s just our society. Our culture is that way now. So, we started to say, “Hey, being for your friend is to text them and say, ‘how’s your day going?'” Being for someone in your life is to pray for them. If you don’t even have four people, pray that God would bring you four people and that he would identify them to you. I stood on the platform and said, for some of you, the big thing you’re going to do this week is going to that house across the road and introduce yourself to your neighbor. You don’t even know who they are. You don’t know that person in your office. You don’t, you don’t know people.
Jeff: 11:59 What about hosting a barbecue? We actually said at one point that year if you want to host a barbecue with your neighborhood, we’ll run it for you, including care for the kids, and it’s not going to have Connexus anywhere, it’s going to be your barbecue but you just don’t know how to host a barbecue. So we’ll host it and you can get to know your neighbors. So those emails ended up being that. Then we put these art pieces in our locations, string art pieces with no string on them and we said every time you’re for one of your four in a week, you text them, you give them a word of encouragement, you introduce yourself to them, you walk alongside them, whatever it is, we want you to put a string on this art piece in our lobby on Sunday when you come for every person.
Jeff: 12:49 And then we would tell those stories from the front. We would actually celebrate those stories. Hey, let me tell you two strings stories from this past week. Honestly, Tony, the stories that we kept running into where, you know, someone said, hey, I said to her family, how can we be for this person in my workplace who I’m building a relationship with? Then that person, my workplace gets diagnosed with cancer and they’ve got two kids and my two kids say, “I think what we could do is get to have our stuffed animals for his two kids cause they’re probably having a hard time”, and she delivers those stuffed animals to him in the parking line. He’s just weeping that anybody would even care that he’s going through what he’s going through. She didn’t invite him to church. It wasn’t a part of an invitation.
Jeff: 13:36 There was no invite that went out, nobody was tagged on Facebook. This is about growing your heart for the people around you. We have blog posts where there was a 14-day devotional, I think it was seven days actually, to kick it off to get people’s hearts in the right place and the email lists to help them grow and how they’re reaching out to people. Then the string story to celebrate, “Hey, if you invite a friend that’s a string story to absolutely.” This is about growing our hearts for people. That was really the big, big thing for us.
Tony: 14:12 So what’s amazing is as you’re helping people experience this heart change, the invitations somehow are starting to happen then, right? Because you indicated to me a couple of weeks ago, I mean, the number of first-time guests has just skyrocketed over the last couple of years.
Speaker 3: 14:29 Absolutely. So what I have found really interesting about this is I chose to play the long game, which is not my personality. My personality was a quick fix. Let’s just ramp up something that gets people in the doors and not paying attention to the heart change would have been a mistake. Then over time what happened was we started to see more and more people in – it’s part of our language that connects us. I’ve been in meetings at Connexus where someone stands up and says, “Hey Jeff, I’m really sorry, but one of my four just texted me and they’re going through a hard time, I really need to go.” And the person leaves the meeting. I’ve had an elder leave a meeting – “One of my four is part of our language.”
Jeff: 15:18 Everybody is for four – who are your four? These are one of my four. And it’s amazing to see that happen. Then people did begin to invite and we began not just to celebrate when the person did come, but also if the person didn’t come and you invited them, we celebrated that as well, which is important. So I mean, we saw tons of people invite that year to Christmas Eve. Then we launched a location over the next three years. Tons of people invited to the launch of that but even if you exclude those numbers, all of those numbers, just so you know, the number of invites went up by over 50% the next year and then this past year between 2017 and 2018 went up 68%. Now we’re struggling actually to keep up now we actually may have a backdoor problem. Now we’re struggling to keep. Our attendance has grown because that’s what happens, right? Your attendance grows because of that. But what we did is as people’s hearts were changing, then we did create better invite tools. We launched a series, Carey had a book come out and we had a book giveaway the first week and so people invited their guests, but people already know who they want to invite.
Tony: 16:36 Right. The relationship’s already been established, but you are creating some intentional moments then for those invites to happen as well, it sounds like.
Jeff: 16:44 Right. And see, we talk about the language sometimes we’ll hear churches talk about the language of invest and invite. Well, we don’t celebrate any of the investing, we only celebrate the inviting, right? But Jesus did tons of investing. And so what does it mean to actually help people understand how to invest, celebrate the investment and knowing that, hey, you’re the church at your kitchen table as much or more than the invite that you bring to Sunday morning. And as your heart grows, I think you’re growing in discipleship at that time.
Tony: 17:18 Jeff, any practical advice you can give for churches? Are you implementing any new ideas when it comes to when someone comes for the first time? Are you reaching out to them? Are you trying to get some information so that you can follow up directly with them? Or are you just assuming that the person who invited them will kind of be the follow up process?
Jeff: 17:42 That’s a good question. So before that, I got one tip and then I’ll tell you. The one tip I have for churches is if you don’t do string stories like we did string stories, whatever you do, this has to be a part of your staff culture. If you sit at a staff meeting, I learned this from Andy Stanley actually, I heard him say this one time. If you sit a staff meeting and you do prayer requests and everybody’s prayer request is about their aunt who’s sick and their grandma who’s not doing well, you know, you have a problem. So we did string stories every week at the staff meeting and we had the board there and everybody was talking about who they’re investing in and if your staff doesn’t lead the way in investing and inviting then your church isn’t going to follow.
Jeff: 18:29 So I think that needs to be said. As far as follow up, absolutely. So it’s probably a whole podcast in itself. Christine Birch, who’s on our staff, has helped lead the way in designing a whole follow-up strategy where we host those guests, they have somebody at our new here kiosk who hosts them for the morning and then they get a series, they get up a personal video from the campus pastor or they get a handwritten followup as well as a phone call later in the week. Then if we don’t see them back, we do follow up at that point. So there is a whole system and process on the back end of that, but it probably is a whole other podcast talked through that.
Tony: 19:10 But let me ask this question because 20 years ago, one of the assumptions that we made is these first-time guests want to remain anonymous for a season. We shouldn’t ask for their information because they’re not going to be ready to get that. In fact, that could push them away. Do you think that’s still the case for where our culture is today?
Jeff: 19:33 I think first of all if you want to remain anonymous, you don’t have to go to the new here kiosk. I know that right off the bat. What I’m really finding is most people come wanting to be known, not all. Some people still want to be anonymous, but what’s changed for us is our online experience has changed all of that. So 95% of the people who walk in the building have already watched probably at least one service. They’ve probably watched multiple messages. So in our case, they’re self-identifying just by walking through the door.
Jeff: 20:11 It is a choice to self identify, to come in the building. A lot of those people are wanting to be known in our case.
Tony: 20:19 That’s good. All right. So there’s a heart change – Relationships are developed, invites start to happen, and then as you mentioned, attendance has actually grown. Can you share some specifics on that?
Jeff: 20:35 Yeah, I mean, since we’ve kind of watched all that, we’ve grown by 33%. Our biggest growth year being this past year was a big year for us. So we’ve seen over the years and it’s grown. Last year was 20%. So it’s growing faster and faster. I really believe it’s the seeds that were planted at that time. A couple of other things we did just jogging my memory now: We did a prayer night for the people in our community one night that we had people gather at our locations.
Jeff: 21:08 There was something about that I think that starts to shift people’s hearts. If I say to you, “Hey, you need as somebody who’s a follower of Jesus, you want to share that with people”, and everybody goes, absolutely. So you would say go and share and they say, “absolutely” and then they like see a thousand people, you know, over the course of that year and the question is, well, who should I be sharing with and who should, I know there’s no intentionality to it. Sharing with everybody is like saying share with nobody. But when I make it specific that you’re identifying who you want to pray for and be Jesus to and change the posture of your heart now turned them into a project, not with an invite on the other end, but someone who you just want to be Jesus too. Eventually, if you’re passionate about him, you’re going to invite them to join you on the journey.
Tony: 22:00 That’s certainly the case. So, Jeff, you do realize you’re taking away all the excuses I hear from church leaders in today’s day and age. So for example, you know your churches located in Canada, correct?
Jeff: 22:11 Yes. We’re north of Toronto, an hour north of Toronto. Our location that’s closest to Toronto. The other two are further north.
Tony: 22:19 From what I’ve heard where Canada is currently as far as being a post-Christian, post-church culture, I mean, you’re almost a decade probably ahead of where the U.S. Is heading and yet you’re seeing more first time guests than you’ve ever seen as a church and your attendance is growing faster than you’ve ever seen as a church as well. So you’re kind of taking the culture shift out; you’re just going against the grain there. And then the other thing is I hear constantly, “Well we’ve started streaming our services online and now people are watching our services rather than showing up to the church.” Yet your attendance, your physical attendance is growing as well.
Jeff: 23:05 Our online and our physical has, but the online has really ended up being like a gateway. There are some people who track with us from different places online regularly but that’s a very small number. It really is an opportunity for us to, for people to engage with us before they come. I think it’s fantastic in that it takes away so much of the fear factor and what I find is, the other thing is what happens is people binge watch. So a new guest comes for the first time, then they love it. Then they go home and find a series on a topic they love and then they binge watch that topic. Then they’ll bring a question to their friend who brought them and their friend will say, “Oh, you should check out this series” and they’re like, “Oh, I already watched the whole thing.”
Tony: 23:52 I love that. That’s awesome.
Jeff: 23:53 That’s been our experience for sure. The other thing I would love to say to any church leaders who feel like we can’t grow because we’re in a smaller community. I mean our communities are like 50,000. You know, one of them’s about, I know about 160, 170,000. I have learned that there is power, as people are passionate about the people around them, are investing in them. People start to hear about your church and there’s a fly wheel that begins to happen. And I believe that’s what’s happened to us where someone showed up at church a few weeks ago and said, “I met a client and they were talking about your church. And I said to them, I have 10 other clients who go to that same church. I just need to go check it out. So I came, I finally just relented and came because I was hearing about it everywhere.”
Jeff: 24:49 And there is something about turning that flywheel in a smaller community. That’s a huge advantage.
Tony: 24:56 I love that. All right, Jeff, any last words of encouragement to church leaders that are listening in when it comes to really helping their church to become outward focused again and to prioritize relationships and engaging being for the community around them?
Jeff: 25:13 I just want to reiterate, the hardest part of this was the heart work. That was the hardest. It was looking in the mirror and saying, man, I need to renew my passion for the people in my community, with my neighbors, my friends. I need to get on my knees and pray about this. As leaders, we get to, we need to do that because there are a plethora of tools out there that will promise to be the answer. And if you don’t, if this doesn’t start with heart change and there isn’t the integrity of that, it’s going to ring hollow and people are going to smell that and you’re going to create a bigger problem than you already have. But if you do the hard work and your team does the heart work, I believe the sky’s the limit because again, the bigger your heart grows, the bigger the vision God can pour into that, and that’s not limited by finances or that’s not limited by any kind of resource. It’s limited by our ability to be honest about where we’re at and to have a renewed passion. And when you have that and people see that there’s a contagious side to that.
Sean: 26:21 Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If you like what you’re hearing on the podcast, help us get the content out by subscribing, giving us a review and telling your friends. As always, if you’d like to learn more about how we’re helping churches get unstuck, you can visit us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Have a great week.